Study Finds Millions of Smokers May Have Undiagnosed Chronic Lung Disease

A study published on June 22nd in the JAMA Internal Medicine journal found that a number of smokers who may have COPD is bigger than previously thought. Due to the nature of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease many people in its beginning stages do not realize that they have it. Normally the disease does not become apparent until its apparent symptoms such as shortness of breath or coughing cannot be ignored.

According to this study, conducted at National Jewish Health in Denver, around 1 million smokers in the United States already have the beginning stage of COPD, even though a lung function test may find normal lung function.

The study followed almost 9,000 people between the ages of 45 and 80, who had been smoking at least 1 pack of cigarettes per day for 10 years. Even those who smoked more than 1 pack a day were still found to have “healthy” lungs based on lung function tests.

However, just a standard spirometry test isn't enough to reveal a lung problem. Spirometry test are conducted by having the patient blow into a mouthpiece while a computer measures the velocity at which the air is forced out of their lungs.

To properly diagnose the early stages of COPD, a CT scan and an arterial blood gas test need to be done. When CT scans were done to the study participants it was found that their lungs were not functioning properly and could not be considered health lungs.

The study's author Dr. Elizabeth Regan, an assistant professor of medicine at National Jewish Health in Denver, had this to say in a hospital news release:

"Smokers who have 'normal' lung-function tests often have a significant respiratory disease. Many of those smokers likely have the early stages of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. We hope these findings will help debunk the myth of the healthy smoker and highlight the importance of smoking prevention and cessation to prevent lung disease and other long-term effects of smoking."

COPD is a serious, incurable disease and is the 3rd leading cause of death in the United States. Over 80% of cases were caused by smoking cigarettes. Once one has been diagnosed, COPD will keep progressing. It progresses even faster if the patient continues to smoke. Even someone who has stopped smoking years ago can still be diagnosed with it.

What can one do to make sure they don't have COPD? If you've smoked in the past, you can ask your doctor to refer you for lung imaging tests, which can reveal if there is any significant damage to the lungs, or if a lung disease is developing. If you still smoke, you should try to stop as soon as possible, as well as talk to your doctor about your concerns.

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